Abrasive, cranky, and mostly unpleasant, Lee Israel is recognizably human. Lee is not a supervillain and she is also not absurdly nice. She obsessively relies on others for validation and praise, yet so easily freezes them out when she feels they have gotten too close to her; she refuses to form a long-term and uninhibited connection with anyone aside from her 12-year-old cat, Jersey. A biography writer who has found her success to be fleeting, Lee finds herself floundering with no money to pay rent or Jersey’s medical bills. Resourceful and sharp, she discovers she is quite good at forging letters from famous deceased authors, embellishing and making them more interesting than they would have actually been. Lee is a fascinatingly smart and dynamic character and Melissa McCarthy portrays her with utter brilliance. It is a performance we are not used to seeing from her—much darker and more dramatic—but it displays the true depth and reach of her talent (please let her host the Academy Awards!). Her performances is bolstered by an also-wonderful performance at the hands of Richard E. Grant, who plays Jack Hock, Lee Israel’s gay, snarky friend (and accomplice).
The foundation of their performances and the film itself is the amazingly strong and sharp script, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. There was no improvisation at all in the film, but it seems as though there was because the dialogue is so organic. Excellent direction by the refreshing Marielle Heller channels McCarthy and Grant’s talent into the cutting script. I think my favorite aspect of the script (and by extent the film) is the casualness with which it addresses the climate of New York City in the early 90s. Specifically, the precise but normalized way it incorporates the stories of LGBTQ people living in New York at the time. Lee and Jack are both gay, and Jack has AIDS (he eventually dies from it in 1994). They hang around a known gay bar and don’t conceal their habits. We see Lee interact with women she has engaged with in past relationships as well as women she hopes to engage in future relationships. We watch Jack flirt with other gay men and bring them back to Lee’s apartment. It is quite refreshing and nice to see LGBTQ characters portrayed so casually but with such care.
It is a drama and it can be dark at times, but you do not pity Lee for a second; rather you begin to understand that this is the life that she wants because it works for her. Even if her relationships are practically nonexistent, it is because she has made it so. Every moment, every action is intentional and in that the viewer learns to love Lee Israel, in all of her bitter glory. The most particularly salient scene is that in which Lee is given the opportunity to say a few words in front of the judge before she is sentenced. Instead of becoming typically remorseful or dreary, she firmly states that what she did was her best work and that she is still extremely proud of it—regardless of its legality. There is not an ounce of apology in her monologue and it is so very fitting.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a deeply intelligent and well-rounded film, reinforced by amazing performances from its lead actors and an impeccable script. It deliciously displays the full breadth of Melissa McCarthy’s talent and brings to our screen the story of a very morally questionable yet somehow exquisite woman. Most importantly, it is perfectly unforgiving.
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Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.